Newly elected New Bedford City Councilor Shawn Oliver, whose Facebook posts mocking transgender people and their advocates have prompted a high-school student protest and public officials’ criticism, on Monday said that while he meant no harm, “I do see that my actions caused harm and for that, I apologize.”
The three-paragraph statement released late in the afternoon expands on attempts Oliver made to make amends moments after he was sworn into office early Friday evening, as he spoke briefly with students and a local clergy member who had gathered in City Council chambers to protest the Facebook memes and Oliver’s election to the open Ward 3 seat on Feb. 28.
“When I began my candidacy I made it clear I was not a politician, just a guy who truly wanted better for New Bedford,” Oliver said in the statement that he posted to his personal Facebook page Monday and shared to his campaign page. “My goal has been to bring people together and stop the division while fostering a sense of pride and community that has faded within our city.”
Oliver, 39, a correctional officer at the maximum security state prison, MCI-Cedar Junction, and a city constable, said that a few years ago he had “carelessly and thoughtlessly shared some insensitive memes that have taken away from that message.”
He said he recognized the struggle members of the LGBTQ+ community face “with discrimination while facing abuse and fear for themselves and their rights. Although this was never my intention I do see that my actions caused harm and for that, I apologize. No one should ever feel illegitimate, afraid, or unheard. As your city councilor, I will represent all residents without prejudice.”
Oliver concluded the statement by saying he hopes this episode is a reminder that “words have meaning and that the message of fear or hurt may spread while having no intention of ever doing so. There’s a human in all of us and we all need to work together toward bridging the gap on different topics to bring back the sense of community and belonging we all deserve.”
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In an interview Monday evening, Oliver — who started his first run for public office in early December, soon after then-Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn announced he was stepping down — said he had worked on the statement over the weekend.
“I sat and had a day of reflection” and met with people he referred to as “spiritual leaders” he knows, but would not be more specific.
On Monday evening, students reacted to Oliver’s statement. “I’m happy he apologized, and do believe that he [was] embarrassed for what he did. However, the way he avoided saying it to our faces left a sour taste in our mouths,” said Adrian Aranjo, a student protester who confronted Oliver in City Hall chambers on Friday evening.
Logan Perry, another New Bedford High student, was glad Oliver apologized, but said that by releasing it in a statement and “never apologizing to us in person,” it didn’t seem genuine.
Some students said they hope Oliver will do more than release a statement. Ryder Mulkern said, “I would love for him to advocate for LGBTQ and women’s rights and protection, as well as give a verbal apology rather than just writing it down.”
Oliver told The Light he would be contacting young people through a local LGBTQ+ group, and would be contacting the Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson, pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in New Bedford, who spoke with Oliver in council chambers on Friday evening.
Oliver told Anderson, who came out as a transgender woman in her late 60s, he would like to “bridge that gap” and talk about what had happened, and he said “I’m sorry for the insensitivity.”
In a video of the exchange, Anderson said she would be willing to have that talk with Oliver, but she demanded he “get down on his hands and knees” in contrition. She sharply rejected the new councilor’s characterization of the Facebook posts.
“That was not insensitivity, that was hate,” she said, adding that such sentiments could fuel violence and “your attitude will cause the death of children.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Anderson said the statement Oliver released on Monday is a good start, but she hopes he will go further in understanding the experience of transgender people.
“I’m glad he made the effort to make the apology,” Anderson said. “He chose to do that and I’m grateful for that.”
Still, she said it appears that Oliver “does not fully understand what’s happening here. These type of things he posted brings into question the very being of those of us who are transgender. This isn’t something we’ve chosen. This is authentically who we are.”
She said she hopes Oliver will make good on his promise to pursue discussions with her and with young people, and perhaps as a city councilor advocate for programs supporting transgender people.
Oliver also approached a number of New Bedford High School students to say that he meant no harm. He reached out to shake the hands of one student, but they did not take Oliver’s hand.
Student Av Acevedo told a reporter Oliver was a “sick person” who should have apologized to students right there, rather than saying he would soon release a statement of apology.
Roughly 100 New Bedford High School students walked out of class shortly before 1 p.m. Friday in protest. Some continued the demonstration at City Hall, as officials gathered for Oliver’s swearing in at 6 p.m.
Oliver led a seven-candidate field in the preliminary special election in January and topped Carmen Amaral, also a political newcomer, in the final election last month. With a 6.8% turnout, Oliver won 57% of the vote.
Days before the election, the Coalition for Social Justice, a progressive advocacy group backing Amaral, put out a statement condemning Oliver for six posts that appeared on his personal Facebook page between 2019 and 2022. Three of them targeted transgenderism.
One, captioned “How women have changed over the years,” shows a series of four cartoon images of a nude woman’s torso depicting a transition from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s to the 2000s. As the decades unfold, the triangle of pubic hair shrinks to vanishing only to be replaced, in the final step, by male genitalia.
Another meme on transgenderism shows a slogan on a car window: “Teach Kids to Change Gears Not Genders.”
Another post shows a Black man at a urinal in a public bathroom next to a white person with long, blond hair in a pink skirt. The slogan: “WHEN YOU REGRET VOTING DEMOCRAT.”
As students began their walkout Friday, Mayor Jon Mitchell posted a statement to Facebook criticizing Oliver.
“I have reviewed the crude images posted on Facebook by City Councillor-elect Shawn Oliver that purport to comment on transgender rights,” Mitchell said. “I want to make clear that I categorically condemn the postings … Coming from an individual who is about to assume public office, they are especially abhorrent.”
A School Committee member at the protest, freshman representative Melissa Costa, also condemned the posts.
“I absolutely denounce any meme that targets disenfranchised and marginalized people,” she said.
At-large Councilor Shane Burgo, who was also at the protest, told a reporter that “it’s important for my new colleague to understand [that he is] filling the seat for all of New Bedford,” and when constituents call you on your conduct, “you have to learn to answer.”
In the interview Monday evening, Oliver said he hoped some good would come of this.
“I would hope all of it would be constructive,” he said. “We learn from our life experiences. This is a life experience.”
Editor’s note: This report was updated on March 7, 2023, to include additional comments about Ward 3 City Councilor Shawn Oliver’s apology.
Reporter Colin Hogan contributed to this report. Email Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com. Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His apology is only as good as his actions. His negative remarks indicates what’s in his heart and his mind and highly doubt that he has really changed.
If Mr. Oliver’s apology were sincere, he should have offered it immediately, face to face to the people who were there to protest. Instead, he took the coward’s way out by responding that he would issue a written apology later.
I hope that he will learn a lesson from this and try to understand why his actions were so offensive…not just to the LGBTQ community, but to all of us.
While I want to believe he will not let his personal views impact his judgement in his new role as City Councilor, Mr. Oliver faces a steep uphill climb to prove otherwise.
In my opinion, he also needs to address the biased responses on social media of many of his supporters. By remaining silent when he reads such statements as, “They were only memes, and he has a right to post whatever he wants,” Councilor Oliver is encouraging others to perpetuate the hate.
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